Eduardo Verdugo, Associated Press
SILAO, Mexico — Pope Benedict XVI urged Mexicans to wield their faith against drug violence, poverty and other ills, celebrating Sunday Mass before a sea of hushed worshippers in a visit that has warmed many Mexicans to a pontiff they often saw as austere.
Many in the crowd said they were gratified by Benedict's recognition of their country's problems and said they felt reinvigorated in what they described as a daily struggle against criminality, corruption and economic hardship.
The pope delivered the message to an estimated 350,000 people against the backdrop of the Christ the King monument, one of the most important symbols of Mexican Christianity. The statue recalls a 1920s Roman Catholic uprising against the anti-clerical laws that forbade public worship services such as the one Benedict celebrated.
"We pray for him to help us, that there be no more violence in the country," said Lorena Diaz, 50, who owns a jeans factory in nearby Leon. "We pray that he gives us peace."
With his first visit to Mexico, the pontiff appeared to lay to rest doubts that he was a distant, cold pope who could never compare to the charisma and personal connection that his predecessor, John Paul II, forged over his five visits to Mexico. Many Mexicans said they were surprised by their depth of feeling for Benedict.
On Sunday, he charmed the crowd by donning a broad-brimmed Mexican sombrero.
"Some young people rejected the pope, saying he has an angry face. But now they see him like a grandfather," said Cristian Roberto Cerda Reynoso, 17, a seminarian from Leon. "I see the youth filled with excitement and enthusiasm."
He charmed them again later Sunday when he was serenaded by a mariachi band and presented with another sombrero at the entrance to the school where he was staying.
"I've made a lot of trips, but I've never been welcomed with such enthusiasm," Benedict told the wildly cheering crowd in off-the-cuff remarks. "Now I can understand why Pope John Paul II used to say, 'I feel like I'm a Mexican pope.'"
Esther Villegas, a 36-year-old cosmetics vendor, said Benedict's image in Mexico has been changed greatly by the visit.
"We saw a lot of happiness in his face. We are used to seeing him with a harder appearance, but this time he looked happier, smiling," Villegas said. "A lot of people didn't care for him enough before, but now he has won us over."
Before Sunday's ceremony, the vast field was filled with noise, as people took pictures with cellphones and passed around food. But as the Mass started, all fell silent, some dropping to their knees in the dirt and gazing at the altar or giant video screens.
In his homily, Benedict encouraged Mexicans to purify their hearts to confront the sufferings, difficulties and evils of daily life. It has been a common theme in his first visit to Mexico as pope: On Saturday he urged the young to be messengers of peace in a country that has witnessed the deaths of more than 47,000 people in a drug war that has escalated during a government offensive against cartels.
"At this time when so many families are separated or forced to emigrate, when so many are suffering due to poverty, corruption, domestic violence, drug trafficking, the crisis of values and increased crime, we come to Mary in search of consolation, strength and hope," Benedict said in a prayer at the end of Mass.
The reference to Mary is particularly important for Mexicans, who revere the Virgin of Guadalupe as their patron saint, and he urged all of Latin America and the Caribbean to look to her for help. "She is the mother of the true God, who invites us to stay with faith and charity beneath her mantle, so as to overcome in this way all evil and to establish a more just and fraternal society."
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